Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before

Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before
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Just over a third of American adults have a four-year college degree, the highest level ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a report released Monday, the Census Bureau said 33.4 percent of Americans 25 or older said they had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s a sharp rise from the 28 percent with a college degree a decade ago.

When the Census Bureau first asked respondents about their education levels, in 1940, just 4.6 percent said they had a four-year degree.

About a quarter of American adults, 26 percent, have a high school diploma. Another 21 percent have attained a bachelor’s degree, while 9.3 percent of adults over 25 have a master’s degree. Almost 2 percent of Americans have a doctoral degree, and 1.5 percent have earned a professional degree that requires study beyond a four-year bachelor’s course.

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Younger Americans are more likely to have attained a four-year degree than older groups. Among Americans between the ages of 25 to 34, 37 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. Among those 55 and older, just under 30 percent have a four-year degree.

And women are slightly more likely than men, by about half a percentage point, to have graduated from college.

Wide disparities in educational attainment still exist along racial lines, the Census shows. More than 37 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans have a college degree, while just 23 percent of African-Americans have reached the same level of formal education. Only 16.4 percent of Hispanic Americans have a college degree.

Still, the percentage of both African-Americans and Hispanic Americans who have attained a college degree has grown in recent years. Among African-Americans, college graduation has doubled since 1991. Among Hispanics, the number of college graduates has increased 60 percent in the last 20 years.

Asian Americans are most likely to have attained a college degree: More than half, 55.9 percent, have completed a four-year college program.

Higher education levels have strong correlations with higher average earnings, underscoring efforts in Congress and in state legislatures to increase access to college education for low-income and minority students. Adults with only a high school education earned an average of $35,615 in 2016, according to the Census figures. Those who had a college degree earned an average of $65,482 last year.

But college remains an unaffordable and unattainable goal for many Americans.

A March study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that students from low- and moderate-income households could afford to pay for just 1 to 5 percent of colleges in the United States. The group urged federal and state lawmakers to cut student costs by spending more on public institutions, and to expand access to student loan programs, such as the Pell Grant.

The Census data show the number of high school graduates is also increasing, across racial and gender lines. More than 89 percent of Americans reported achieving a high school education in 2016, up from 79 percent a quarter-century ago. Among blacks, the percentage of high school graduates is up to 87.1 percent, a 10-point increase in the last 18 years.

The percentage of Hispanic Americans with a high school diploma is up 10 points since 2004, though at 68.5 percent that number still lags well behind other races.